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Active Learning Spaces

Smarter spaces to improve student success. Why our learning spaces must be reinvented.

You’ll be amazed, perhaps astounded to learn that today’s classrooms look almost exactly like then ones you sat in 5, 10, or even 50 years ago. Despite revolutionary technology, the information explosion, and an interconnected planet, the typical college classroom is fixed in time like a museum diorama.

Sure, there’s often a computer in the corner that can pull up a YouTube video, maybe even an electronic whiteboard. But the scene rarely changes: rows of hard chairs with little tablet arms, a writing board attached to the wall, an instructor’s lectern – in short, everything geared to the lecture format developed back when the only iPad was a chalk slate. With improvements on teaching and learning methods, can 19th century classroom design be the best way to prepare students for the 21st century knowledge economy or is it time to rethink the design principles?

Many educators say it’s about time.

A lot of classrooms, in terms of flexibility, ease of use, comfort, proper lighting, I’d give a failing grade,” says Dominique laroche, director, Office of the University architect at arizona State University (aSU) and a faculty associate with the School of architecture and landscape architecture. “Technology is light years ahead of us. The infrastructure and the classrooms are lagging behind.” “Students today are far more connected, far more facile with technology than students 30 years ago, but schools haven’t accommodated what kids can do, or adjusted what we try to do with them.

You see students using laptops or other devices, but the instruction often isn’t designed to take up on the fact that they’re coming to class with those tools instead of binders and pencils,” says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and a prominent researcher in effective teaching methods.

Most classrooms are set up for passive note taking, not the give and take common to knowledge work. “We found that most classrooms are a barrier to learning and don’t support the individual needs of students and instructors,” says Elise Valoe, a principal researcher with Steelcase WorkSpace futures.

Elise’s team studied learning spaces at a dozen different universities across the U.S., including public, private, and community colleges. As a result, Steelcase WorkSpace researchers and designers have developed key design principles for planning 21st century classrooms. “These are based on our research and intended to provide people who plan education spaces some guiding tenets for more interactive, more flexible learning environments,” says Elise.

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The essential principles:

  • Design for multiple rhythms in the same classroom
  • Allow everyone to be seen and heard
  • Take advantage of new media
  • Support the dynamic presentation of information
  • Design for mentoring and apprenticeship
  • Design for temporary ownership of space
  • Explore planning and application ideas.

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